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Q&A with NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton

NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton speaks at the league's annual media day in September. Photo by Clint Austin/Duluth News Tribune

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Just behind the famed Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, nestled off of a winding road, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference headquarters sit in a building full of sports-related offices.

The NCHC office looks quite different than it did six years ago when the league first started. The walls, once barren, have quickly filled up. Staff members have had plenty to celebrate.

They have collages from the first five NCHC Frozen Faceoff tournaments, the only conference tournament in the West that has been able to remain financially viable at a neutral site.

They have a framed collage of the College Hockey Showcase -- a game the league set up between UND and Boston College in New York City's Madison Square Garden. They have banners and jerseys of all eight teams and photos of every Penrose Cup-winning team.

Last summer, they even constructed a wall in the conference room to honor its NCAA national champions after North Dakota, Denver and Minnesota Duluth won back-to-back-to-back in past three seasons.

Commissioner Josh Fenton has helped build a league from scratch that has been profitable in every year to this point. But now, his league will face a new challenge.

For the first time since the NCHC’s inception in 2013-14, UND is not at home for the first round of the league playoffs. The league keeps the majority of ticket revenue for the first round. Because Ralph Engelstad Arena is the largest venue in the NCHC and UND has the largest fan base, it has the greatest revenue potential of all home venues.

The league also is looking at the possibility of UND not being at the NCHC Frozen Faceoff in St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center for the first time ever. Denver will be favored in its first-round series this weekend against the Fighting Hawks, who haven’t won a series in Magness Arena since 2003. UND fans have provided the lion's share of attendance in the first five Frozen Faceoffs.

Fenton, who recently turned 40, sat down in the NCHC’s conference room to answer questions about the league.

Q. Is there a concern about revenue with North Dakota not hosting in the first round of the playoffs?

A: I think our financial model today and how we structure the whole thing -- what goes into revenue, what goes into expenses from an overall league operations standpoint, obviously the quarterfinal round and the Frozen Faceoff are a big part of it. With all of it factored in, I think we feel fairly comfortable and confident with the financial model. Regardless of scenarios, it can be managed in a manner that will be fine. I don’t know that I would have said that a few years ago. But I feel that we’ve gotten our business situation to where, regardless of what happens in the quarterfinal round and in the Frozen Faceoff, we can manage it.

Certainly, there are situations in both quarterfinal round and Frozen Faceoff -- teams hosting, teams not hosting, teams making the Frozen Faceoff, teams not making the Frozen Faceoff -- that can put us in better positions or not. But in general, as I look at it, based upon where we sit today and the scenarios that could play out, I think we'll be in fine shape and certainly that’s my job to figure that out.

Q. Last year, the Frozen Faceoff changed venues from the Target Center in Minneapolis to the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. How did that go?

Fenton: That was outstanding. There’s no doubt that the fans really embraced the move. We had a great relationship with the city of Minneapolis and the staff at the Target Center. They were a big part of us building our brand and building our tournament championship. But when the opportunity came up to move it to the ‘X,’ there’s a business aspect to it, there’s a student-athlete and team experience aspect to it, there’s a fan experience aspect to it. And when you look at all of those across the board, we felt it was the right decision to move over there. That played out as we thought it would last year. We’ve been really happy with that move.

Q. The NCHC is the only league in college hockey that still has a third-place game. What’s the future of the third-place game?

Fenton: We’re having discussions, and have had discussions, amongst our members and also with the Xcel Energy Center. The Xcel Energy Center and the Minnesota Wild would like to see if there’s a model where we could get to where it’s potentially semifinals Friday, a Wild game in the middle of the day or early afternoon Saturday and the NCHC championship game Saturday night. That model may play out in the future. We’re not there yet. But it could play out.

We think if it does play out that way, the experience for the fan, which is most important when we have these types of discussions, will be even more enhanced, because we’re going to look at ways in which we could have opportunities for Wild tickets available for sale for people coming down for the weekend. I know a Wild ticket is hard to get and we’re not going to have thousands of tickets available, but we’ll have enough, I think, to accommodate those who want to come down and make it a weekend experience.

We’re not all the way there yet on that one. It may take a little bit of time and we may ultimately not get there, but it is being discussed.

Q. Obviously, the third-place game for this season is locked in. But is it locked in for 2020, too?

Fenton: It’s not locked in for 2020. When we say ‘locked in,’ I have to submit our playoff model to the NCAA as we go into next season, and once I submit that to the NCAA, then it kind of locks it in.

Q. The last time Frozen Four bids came up, you guys partnered on a bid for Kansas City, right?

Fenton: Yes, we partnered with the Sprint Center in Kansas City and it was a partnership with the Kansas City Sports Commission.

Q. Is that a financial opportunity for you guys or why does the league bid on a Frozen Four?

Fenton: It’s a potential financial opportunity, albeit, a small one. I don’t think it’s overly significant. It was more so about helping us build our brand and expose our brand on a national scale.

Q. When Frozen Four bids come up again in a few years, will you look at bidding again?

Fenton: We’ll look at it. I talked to the gentleman in Kansas City a few months ago, just staying in touch. It may be Kansas City. It may be another market. I’ve had some conversations. I would like to find ways for the overall good and growth of the game to move the Frozen Four to a nontraditional market, but a larger media market in our country -- the LAs of the world, the New Yorks of the world. I think there may be interest for Dallas to get involved. We’ve had conversations. I haven’t had any conversations with people associated with Dallas, but I’ve had conversations with people associated with Los Angeles and New York, just based on the relationship we have with New York and Madison Square Garden hosting the College Hockey Showdown a few years ago.

We actually went through the process of looking at the Frozen Four at Staples Center (Los Angeles). The challenge with those venues is that they’re very, very busy. Staples Center has three pro teams playing out of there. The Frozen Four falls at a time when it’s tough for NHL and NBA teams to kind of move to the side. It’s an event where you really need the venue to be dark from Tuesday through Saturday night. For a Staples Center or a Madison Square Garden, I understand there are challenges. But if we could find a way to get around some of those challenges, I think it would be awesome for the sport to bring a Frozen Four to New York or Los Angeles.

Q. Would the NCHC want to do another College Hockey Showcase again with UND or another team from the league?

Fenton: Yeah, in fact, Madison Square Garden would like to work with us on something again in the future. We had a great experience. I don't want to speak for them, but I think I can say pretty accurately that they thought it was a good experience. The one thing about that event is that they had a partner in us that worked pretty consistently to try to make sure that event was a big success. It started years in advance. We did lion’s share of work getting things ready, the promotional aspect of it. . . they appreciated the partnership we brought to the relationship. They're interested in doing something like that again in the future. We’re interested in doing something like that again in the future. It has to make business sense, and somewhat interconnected to that, you have to have the right matchups and right teams involved. You can’t just say we’re going to do a game in New York and just pick teams. You have to have the right matchups.

Brad Elliott Schlossman

Schlossman is in his 14th year covering college hockey for the Herald. In 2016 and 2018, he was named the top beat writer in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors. He also was the NCHC's inaugural Media Excellence Award winner in 2018. Schlossman has voted in the national college hockey poll since 2007 and has served as a member of the Hobey Baker and Patty Kazmaier Award committees.

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